Road Trip to Arenal

Trip Start May 20, 2006
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Trip End Jul 18, 2006


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Sunday, July 9, 2006

Just got back from a weekend trip to the Arenal Volcano. Let me begin by saying that I have already seen so much of this country-from Montezuma to Puerto Viejo, Monteverde to Manuel Antonio-it is truly amazing. Arenal was without a doubt the highlight of Costa Rica for me so far. I can't say I had the most fun there, nor did I find Arenal itself the most beautiful, but there's just something about that volcano that draws you in (but not too far in!) I felt a real connection to the earth, an intimacy with the raw, untouchable force of the mountain.

After renting a car, my mother and I left on our adventure Friday morning. Not having driven a stick shift in many years and about to embark on a journey in a country with no street names, I looked at my mom as we set off and all I could say was, "Pray." Miraculously, we found our way out of San Jose without incident and made Grecia the first stop of our trip. Grecia is a cute little town with a nice church and main square. Not much to see there, but it made for a good pit-stop to regroup after navigating out of the capital.

Next stop: Sarchi. Sarchi is known for the beautiful hand-painted oxcarts that are famous throughout Costa Rica. The town is adorable, with an elegant church crowning its tallest hill and an equally pretty central square. Sarchi's real pieces de resistance, however, are the beautiful hand-painted details found throughout the town: painted lampposts, bridges, buildings, etc. It's like something out of a fairytale. After lunch and a visit to the oxcart factory, where we watched artisans painting their wares, we embarked on the drive to Arenal.

The drive from San Ramon to Arenal is by far the most beautiful drive I've done in Costa Rica--and perhaps anywhere. In my experience, its only rivals are Hwy 128 from Cloverdale to Mendocino in California, and the coastal drive between Sorrento and Amalfi in Italy. Filled with tropical flowers, lush trees, waterfalls, rivers, hills, valleys, curves, and adorable towns, the road to Arenal is one whose beauty will forever be etched in my mind.

We made it to Arenal just before nightfall and checked into our hotel, the Arenal Volcano Inn. I have to give a special nod to this hotel, as it was by far my favorite Costa Rican hotel I've stayed in. The private cabins were enormous, with huge, spotlessly clean windows and patios overlooking the volcano. The pool and grounds were some of the most aesthetically beautiful I've seen yet. Breakfast was great and the staff was superb. And all this for $75/night. Compared to the world-famous Tabacon Resort, which is 3x as expensive and you're not even guaranteed a view of the volcano, the Volcano Inn is the clear winner. So, my first piece of advice for anyone visiting Arenal is to stay at the Volcano Inn!

The night we arrived we were given a real treat: the fog cleared and we had a direct view of the erupting volcano! The red hot lava shot down the side of the mountain like a fireworks show right outside our room. Truly one of the most amazing sights I have ever witnessed. It was also one only a two brief glimpses we got of the volcano all weekend.

We spent Saturday exploring the area. Took a trip up the Arenal Aerial Tram (overpriced and over-rated), for a spectacular view of Lake Arenal, the largest man-made lake in Central America. (You can see this from many other places--no need to cough up the outrageous dough for the tram.) Then we stopped at the Tabacon Resort for an a la carte lunch. While enjoying some crepes Florentine and perhaps the best hamburger I've ever had in my life, my mother and I looked up to see the clouds clear over the volcano and we got our second perfect view! It stayed clear for about 20 minutes as we watched steam pour out of the top of the volcano and lava roar down its slopes. I must have taken 100 pictures. Seriously, it was incredible.

That evening we took the Best-Bang-For-Your-Buck tour in Arenal. Okay, that's not what it's really called, but that's what I'm calling it. $65 gets you a tour of the rainforest, a walk to the closest approachable point of the volcano, buffet dinner at Tabacon Resort, and entrance to the hot springs. In comparison, the dinner is usually $25 and entry to the hot springs $45, so you're already ahead and you haven't even gone on the preceding 3-hour tour. We did some great birding on the tour and I got my first toucan photos! (Bird Man, eat my invisible socks.) I also made a new friend, Beth, a Purdue MBA student interning in Costa Rica for the summer who coincidentally goes to the same dance school I attend in San Jose. Turns out, we have many mutual friends. Of all the luck!

After the rainforest, we hit Tabacon. Beth and I were checking in and getting our towels when my mother called out from the next room, "Krisztina, look who I find for you!" I didn't even have to look. Immediately images of The Beak sprang to my head and I looked up to see it clear the crowd as it popped out from behind the corner, its owner in tow. I knew it! One night in Arenal--OF COURSE I was going to see Carnival Cruise Guy at the Tourist Factory known as the Tabacon buffet! My mom and I were on the package tour circuit, hopping from town to town like Dead roadies in aloha shirts. Joe and I made pleasantries as he told me about his last 2-day tour to the Caribbean zone and his bus trip through Arenal (snooze...), as my mother beamed with a look on her face that said she had just done her good deed for the day. Little did she know. Fortunately, Beth appeared a few minutes later and unknowingly rescued me. I bid Joe adieu and pranced off with Beth to hit the hot springs, filling her in on the sordid saga along the way.

After a relaxing dip in the HOT springs, Beth and I rejoined our group for Tabacon's buffet dinner. It was alright. The food was good, but after the a la carte lunch earlier that day, it was nothing special. Plus, there were nothing but tour groups in the establishment, and I think we've long established how I feel about that! After finishing off a bottle of wine and closing down the restaurant, Beth and I made plans to catch up with each other in dance class on Monday. What a small world!

The next day my mom and I headed home, stopping at the last attraction of her trip, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. We barely made it through the the butterfly tent when it started pouring buckets of rain... and pouring... and pouring... we ducked into a restaurant to eat and wait out the rain... and waited... and waited... After over an hour of waiting with absolutely no possible hint of dryer weather, my mother and I decided to call it quits and head home. With weather like that, who knew how long it would take to get there!

So, down the mountain we went, making it back to Escazu in just under 2 hours. We miraculously managed not to get lost and everything went without incident. A great weekend!
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